Aquarium Aquascape Design and Fish Tank Plant Placement

It used to be that fish tank design consisted primarily of brightly colored gravel, glossy paper or 3D backgrounds, a few plastic plants and a bubbling sunken ship. The best aquarium design concept was to place the sunken ship off to one side rather than centering it. Most of us didn’t strive then to achieve natural looking fish tanks, but, yeah, black gravel with an off-centered, bubbling sunken pirate ship was artsy.

Those days are gone. A few sunken ships still linger, but the world of aquarium aquascaping has expanded to depths most of us couldn’t have envisioned thirty years ago. Today live plants are used prolifically by even casual fishkeepers, utilizing CO2 injectors and special formulas of sand in place of the old brightly colored gravels. Saltwater tanks feature live coral and anemones in abundance, and anyone keeping any kind of fish in a fishbowl these days is harshly criticized -and rightly so.

The more sophisticated options in aquarium aquascape designs range from the lush garden look of the Dutch Style to the sometimes barren looking ‘biotopes’ created to replicate -as much as is possible- the exact conditions the resident fish would have enjoyed in the wild. Tank design itself has evolved to provide endless shapes and possibilities, such as acrylic tubes connecting multiple fish tanks like modules in a hamster cage.

But we needn't expend that much time and money to provide our fish with a comfortable, natural looking fish tank that is also very attractive to human viewers. This article provides an introduction to aquarium aquascape design for your own at-home freshwater fish tank, for the use of amateur and beginner fishkeepers, or anyone looking to update the look of their aquarium.

Picture by Pinpin on Wikimedia Commons
Picture by Pinpin on Wikimedia Commons

Dutch Style Aquascapes

The natural tendency of beginner aquarists when they approach the art of fish tank aquascaping is to place tall plants along the back of their tanks, with smaller plants in front. Of course this seems like an obvious and necessary practice in order to keep all the plants viewable, as well as to add depth to the aquarium.

A similar alternative to this is creating an aquascape design using Dutch streets. The Dutch style of aquascaping dates back to the 1940’s when wide spread use of electricity prompted the birth of modern fishkeeping equipment, and many modern fishkeeping practices.

In general the Dutch style of aquascaping utilizes various plant heights, colors and textures in a densely planted fish tank to create a lush garden look in the fish tank. If your final product –given time to grow in- does not have that appearance, it is not a true Dutch style, although you may have utilized some of the Dutch style techniques in your design. That is, of course, perfectly okay. Even if you don’t seek the look of lush growth, the techniques of Dutch style aquascaping can still be useful in your own aquarium design.

Typically Dutch style aquascapes would contain nothing more than multiple rows of plants in ascending heights, and a narrow strip of unplanted area at the very front. The idea is that plants grow in bunches and strips, like to like. In Dutch style aquascaping this concept is achieved through the use of Dutch streets.

Dutch streets –in the aquascaping sense of the term- are rows of the same stem plants ascending in height the further back into the tank it goes. Dutch streets are created by taking a bunch of stems from the same plant and cutting them at varying lengths. Once cut the stems are planted into the tank with the tallest stem the furthest back, and the next tallest planted in front of it perhaps an inch or so to the side. Then the next tallest is planted, the next and so on until you have achieved a row or strip of the plant growing taller the further back it goes. That is a Dutch street, and an important concept of fish tank aquascaping.

A similar concept would be flower arranging. If you were to arrange two dozen red roses in a vase to be placed on a side table or buffet, you would cut their stems in various heights, placing the tallest stems at the back, and the shortest at the front. The finished result would be an arrangement where every stem –or rose- is visible.

Using the above analogy you can see that aquascaping with Dutch streets is not to form straight lines. Rather a bunch of one thing is cut into varying heights and arranged together in a way that creates a whole, but allows each to be seen. 

Often the best of the Dutch style fish tanks create their Dutch streets at angles. These angled aquarium aquascape designs usually run in the general direction of back right corner towards front left corner. This is for some reason more pleasing to the eye than the opposite left to right.

Again, a variety of plants are used, contrasting colors and leaf shapes and textures to obtain the look of a lush garden within your aquarium aquascape. Plants which wouldn’t work as stem plants are also used, to break up the Dutch streets and provide balance, or to create an alternate focal point.

Another invention of the Dutch style is the corkboard wall in the fish tank. A corkboard backing can be used to attach small plants to with thread. These plants would grow to cover the corkboard giving the tank a living back wall of greenery.

It should be noted that Dutch style aquascaping does require a fair amount of regular pruning to maintain the look. Due to the heavy planting of this look it would not be a good idea to attempt it with synthetic plants. Vacuuming of the gravel and even performing water changes can displace synthetic plants, making regular maintenance extremely time consuming and difficult.  

Nonetheless, though Dutch style aquascaping isn’t advised for fake plants, the design principle of Dutch streets still applies. Attempt groupings of the same plant in natural looking strips, and when using various types of plants, you may want there to be contrast amongst them.

In summary the basic aquascaping design principles of the Dutch aquascaping style are using various heights of not just plants but of each individual stem utilizing stem plants to form natural strips of the same plant, angling these strips or Dutch streets from front left of tank towards back right of tank, contrasting colors and textures, and heavy planting to achieve a lush look. Whether you attempt the lush garden look or not, these concepts are great to keep in mind when considering the possibilities for your own aquarium aquascape design.

Picture by Mikey Swales on Flickr
Picture by Mikey Swales on Flickr

Creating Biotopes

Biotopes are less of a style and more of a quest. Biotope aquascaping is all about attempting to recreate as much as possible the exact environment the inhabitants of your tank would have lived in naturally. Biotope aquascapers strive to find the exact plant types or species if possible, the exact substrate, rocks, driftwood etc.

It’s a demanding task, and definitely not for the beginner aquarist. In considering your own aquascaping ideas, you should still want to consider the environment you’re creating as a whole. For instance, you’ve created a fish tank aquascape using driftwood, mosses, and leafy plants, with gravel the color of river rocks. Then you drop in a few sea shells.

Quick, take them back out! No good, it’s jarring and incohesive. Ideally your aquarium aquascape will have a general theme, such as river, lake, swamp, jungle, or even an ocean theme if you desire. You may go whimsical or opt for greek ruins or castles, or go for the look of a Chinese garden. Whatever suits you is fine, but you will achieve a much more aesthetically pleasing look if you stick within one general theme.

If you don’t want a particular theme, then for freshwater aquariums the best default theme is a river theme, bog theme or a lake theme. A river theme would generally utilize driftwood accents as would a bog theme, while a lake theme would include large rocks. Generally speaking, though not always true, driftwood and large rocks are better used separately. That said, adding a large rock to a tank with driftwood is perfectly okay if the goal will be to let moss grow over most of it.

Though I don’t at all recommend biotope aquascaping for the beginning aquarist, there are basic principles from biotopes that would benefit your own fish tank design plans. Stick with a general theme, and make certain that no element of your design sticks out as not belonging. Additionally, generally speaking driftwood and large rocks don’t mix well.

Amano Style Tank

Picture by Daniel Kwok on Flickr
Picture by Daniel Kwok on Flickr

Natural Aquascapes and Takashi Amano

Takashi Amano aquascapes can provide great inspiration. For the beginner or casual aquarist, however, that particular amount of detail and maintenance isn't always practical. Even if the beginner aspires to create his own Amano style showpiece, as many of us do, we're better off starting with the basics. Nonetheless, Amano has a good deal to teach us about the basics. One might say that Amano aquascape designs are so basic, that to replicate one is indeed very feasible. But that would be overstating their simplicity.

Like a classic Chanel dress, all you may seem to see is a strikingly lovely but oddly simple black dress. But the way the pieces of the dress are assembled is what makes it so perfect. So it is with Amano aquascapes.

You know what you’re looking at is perfect, but at the same time it may be merely a few stones arranged on a bed of grass. However, if you attempt the same idea on your own without some training, it’ll never look nearly as wondrous.

Takashi Amano is a Japanese aquarist, photographer and writer, whose work in aquascaping has helped to promote and recreate the very art. He's also an environmentalist, and his aquascapes focus on the principle of creating a complete ecological system within the freshwater aquarium that utilizes artistic principles.

Aesthetically speaking, his aquascaping designs evoke a pristine harmony of balanced nature that is stunning in both its grandeur and its simplicity. Live plant life, driftwood or rock formations unite to form a very pleasing and soothing nature scene within the tank. 'Zen like' is a term often used to describe Amano designs, and indeed design principles of Zen design are used to guide his placement of the pieces.

Minimalism is a basic principle of Amano style aquascapes. Most of his designs utilize only a few plant species, or even just one or two. Negative -or empty- space is sometimes abundantly used. Despite these seeming limitations, by using sound, time-tested principles of design, Amano style aquascapes achieve a perfection of beauty and balance.

Uniquely, Amano style aquascapes often strive to create a vast landscape within the confines of the aquarium. Be careful, if you get too into this type of aquascaping, every landscape you see will become a challenge to your mind to visualize how it might be recreated in an aquarium. Here are some guidelines to get you started.

The law of thirds is the starting point. Divide your aquarium and the visualized scene you wish to create into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. The bottom third is that which you can create on the floor of your fish tank, including plants and objects that will not extend very far up. The middle third is generally going to be the bulk of your plantings, while the upper third is the tops of your plantings and the sky or negative space. Another way to look at this is foreground, mid-ground and distance. Using this guide of dividing the vertical will help your aquascaping designs to attain greater depth.

The horizontal division into three helps you with placement of your focal points. The best location of a focal point is generally speaking one of the two dividing lines, either 33.3% or 66.6% down the length of your aquarium. Of course, this doesn’t have to be exact, nor is it an unbendable rule, but asymmetry is often more pleasing to the eye as well as more natural looking.

If your focal point is an interesting piece of driftwood that has some length to it, you may wish to center it, or to position it just off-center. That is fine, and often will be the best location. These aren’t to be thought of as rules that must be abided by, but rather as guidelines that generally work best. If you choose to center your focal point, the law of thirds will still be useful in determining best placement of other plants and objects. Perhaps you then divide into thirds the space remaining on either side of your focal point.

Alternately, you could choose to place your focal point on one of the two dividing lines, and place your secondary focal point on the other. You may wish to place both just outside of the lines, to create a larger center area, depending on the scene you are trying to create.

Focal points, in Amano style designs are always one of three things. A particular plant or particular group of plants, a stone or group of stones, or a piece of driftwood, or driftwood arrangement which may consist of more than one actual piece.

You may be thinking that this sounds rather dull. In nature what is there but plant life, stone, and wood. It is not the stone that makes the design, nor the plant or the wood, it is the form of the pieces used, and the way they are put together to create a whole that makes the design. Stones are not necessarily stones, but mountains within the aquascape; a piece of driftwood is not a piece of driftwood, but a forest within the aquascape. For that matter the gravel you leave uncovered by plants growth may be a stream, or a pond, a representation of water as a dry stream is a representation of water in outdoor Zen design. Small stones placed along the stream may represent sailboats. A small patch of grass may represent a large field or meadow.

Additionally, although Amano style aquascapes do not contain anything manmade, there is no reason to limit yourself if you are not so inclined. You might create an entire Amano style aquascape within your own aquarium and then choose to use a store bought aquarium pagoda as one of your focal points.

Another common design trick in Amano's aquascapes is to avoid large leafed plants, which can tend to make an aquarium look smaller. Smaller leafed plant forms make the tank appear to be much larger than it actually is. Additionally, if you are attempting to create a larger scene, a large leafed plant can quickly ruin the impression.

One other design technique often demonstrated in Amano’s aquascapes are the use of curves. Curving lines are peaceful and soothing to the mind. Straight lines are rare in nature, and in the pursuit of a natural aquascape should therefore be used sparingly. Straight lines placed at angles are less jarring than perpendicular lines.

In practice, this equates to choosing your pieces of wood for their interesting lines, knots, curves and angles. Straight pieces of wood are much less interesting, though may sometimes still be used. Whatever wood you use may be softened and more naturalized by attaching moss or other small plants to grow upon it. Cotton thread can be used for this purpose, and do not concern yourself much with hiding the thread. The plants will quickly grow out to cover the threads on its own.

Some of the lessons we learn from Amano are abstract, such as to think big, and to not be afraid of trying to create an impression rather than an exact replication. Often fish tank aquascapes are an attempt to recreate a small area of a river or lake exactly the size of the glass box we are limited to working in. Amano teaches us that we are not limited to this. Unlike the Dutch style of aquascaping, we are not limited to creating a garden the size of our tank which incorporates as many plants as we can fit into it. Unlike Biotopes we are not limited to recreating an underwater environment.

Techniques to do this which we have learned are the law of thirds -vertically and horizontally, the use of small leafed plants, the power of minimalism and negative (empty) space, and the use of curves.

Tonina Tanks

Tonina tanks are not really intended to be a new style of aquascaping, but are actually collector tanks. What I mean by this is that a true Tonina tank would only include Tonina species of plants and others closely related. Tonina plants originate in South America, and are fine leafed, wispy types of plants which have gained a large following. Since Tonina plants require soft, acidic water in order to survive, people collecting these species of aquatic plants would generally keep them in their own tanks.

There are a good variety, each one a lovely plant, and somehow in these collectors’ tanks they developed a habit of grouping each species separately. This may not sound unique, but let’s look back at the main aquascaping styles we’ve already discussed.

In the Dutch style of aquascaping, contrasts of plant shapes, colors and textures are highly prioritized. Additionally, a sense of lushness is obtained through very dense plantings of these various types of plants. There was no idea of planting a tank all in the same type of plants, in fact the goal was the opposite.

In Biotopes, this may have happened, particularly if the Biotope was created based on the same rivers the Tonina species come from. That said, they would not be arranged in carefully placed bunches. It would also be unlikely that in a Biotope situation much attention would have been given to providing much variety.

In Amano style aquascapes, again contrast is generally valued amongst the chosen plants. The use of wood and stone which is a standard in Amano designs is usually absent from Tonina tanks.

What uniquely materialized from Tonina tanks was the concept of creating aesthetically pleasing aquascapes with a tank planted fairly heavily with nothing more than plants which all featured a very similar form. Though overall plant sizes vary, and there are some differences amongst the leaf sizes and shapes, and even variance in color, all the plant species used in Tonina tanks are soft, delicate looking plants with wispy growth habits.

This would present a challenge to the Tonina collector in designing an aquascape with these plants. The challenge was met! Quite adequately, Tonina collectors learned to arrange their plants in ways generally never before recognized as distinct styles. A Tonina tank may feature a large swath of one type of taller plant extending along the back of the tank and curving around the sides to create a surrounding frame for a few rust colored Tonina plants acting as the focal point in the very center of the tank. All of this might be fronted by a third Tonina plant with a short stature sweeping across the foreground, perhaps with a medium sized fourth Tonina plant variety rounding the front corners. The entire selection forming a wispy, airy look.

As simple as this sounds, it is indeed a new style. While keeping Tonina plants may be impossible for many due to their special needs of water conditions, the style that has been developed by Tonina collectors is gaining attention. Perhaps as it evolves a distinction may be made in the field between actual Tonina tanks, and aquascapes designed upon the principles which have been lately developed by Tonina collectors.

In the meantime we can draw upon these principles to develop our own aquascaping styles. It is okay to densely plant a tank in plant species all of the same style. The rules of contrast in shape, size, form and color do not always apply. Similar to monotone styles of interior design, we may look upon the principles evolving from Tonina tanks as monoform styles.

Of course, the same pleasing effect may not be obtained if one attempted the same thing with all spiky plants, or all large leafed plants. That would be similar to using the monotone interior design practice of white on white or varying hues of browns or grays and using instead pinks, purples or reds. That may not turn out so well.

But keep in mind the concept of designing your aquascape in all wispy or all fine leaved plants. Stark contrast isn’t always necessary. Subtlety is an option.

Meeting the Needs of Your Fish

While planning your aquascape design, don’t forget to take into consideration the needs of your fish. Live plants –like fish- sometimes require special water needs, and something will end up dead if your fish and plants don’t enjoy similar water parameters. Fish like goldfish are known for eating many plants, however there are many thicker leaved plants they will not like, such as Java ferns and Anubias.

Many fish enjoy having a good deal of open swimming space, or cleared gravel to forage around in. Others like a cave to hide in. Your fish will be less stressed and longer lived if you can accommodate their particular needs into your aquascape design.

Research your fish, and know what they want. Typically their needs can be worked into any design. For a fish needing a cave you can set a small terra cotta pot on its side –behind some greenery where it is less visible if you like. Attach Java moss to the upper side of it with thread to make it blend in better, but be sure to keep the growth trimmed to maintain the opening.

Suiting Your Own Lifestyle

You’ll also have better results if you stop to consider your own needs. Before planting a tank full of varying plant choices, think about whether or not you seriously have the time to perform the regular trimming it will probably require to keep it looking good. If not, consider using slow growing options, or limit the species involved in your plan so that trimming chores are less complicated.

Utilize tank cleaners such as algae eaters and bottom eaters who will forage amongst the gravel to clean up food overlooked by the other fish. These type of aquatic animals can be used in almost any tank, and considering their usefulness, there’s no reason not to use them.

Using Live Plants

The benefits of using live plants are both aesthetic and health related. Live plants look much nicer than their synthetic counterparts, and come in a much greater variety. They also utilize some of the waste produced in your tank, and in return give off oxygen during daylight hours. With live plants in your tank consuming all the nutrients, algae growth is much less of a problem.

While it is true that live plants can require some high tech maintenance, there are many undemanding species that can be used. If special lights and CO2 injectors aren’t up your alley, there is still a plethora of options to choose from. Crypocorynes, Anubias and Java Ferns usually don’t require any special lighting or extra CO2. I’ve personally had great results with water lily bulbs in tanks with low light and no extra CO2.

A good place to start when trying to determine which plants will work in your conditions and which won’t is aquaticplantcentral.com. They have informative profiles on most of the plants and a few pictures of each. More importantly for the beginner is that their search matrix will let you browse plants by categories, such as lighting requirements and hardiness.

Using Synthetic Plants

The choices available amongst synthetic aquarium plants have grown over the years, and you can now find a good selection. Aquatic plants made of silk are a good choice to eliminate harm to fish with long, flowing fins or tails such as Bettas and Fancy Guppies.

Synthetic plants require no trimming or fertilizers, never die and can easily be used in any tank regardless of water parameters. While they do tend to get dirty, cleaning them is fairly simple. Algae will grow more easily and abundantly in tanks without live plants, so every once in a while it’s a good idea to remove all synthetic plants and let them soak for five minutes in bleach water to kill off algae growth. They will need to be rinsed well afterwards.

Only use synthetic plants that are designed for aquarium use. Otherwise they may be toxic to your fish. To find a broader selection of synthetic choices, you may wish to search online. Most stores have a fairly limited selection.

They are a pretty low maintenance way to go, however. They are easy to buy, easy to place in your tank, with no special needs required. Other than cleaning every other month or so, the only maintenance they’ll require will be resetting a few each time you vacuum your gravel, which isn’t really a big issue.

Proven Design Tricks

Besides the techniques we’ve discussed thus far, there are a few other design tips to mention. Substrate and aquarium backings are besides the plants themselves the most standard pieces of aquarium décor.

Starting with gravel choices, there are many. You can opt for one of several special substrates designed for live plants, but it’s not necessary for most plants. Smaller sized gravels have the benefit of making your tank appear larger and being best suited to bottom feeders, aquatic frogs, shrimp, etc. Additionally you may wish to use a more rounded gravel to avoid harm to corydoras and other bottom feeders.

Whatever you choose, line the bottom of your tank with the substrate in a slope that is higher at the back of your tank than it is at the front. Depending on the depth of your tank, this may be only a difference of half an inch up to an inch, but it provides a better horizon to the viewer. Additionally, if using live plants, taller plants placed in the back may need greater depth to form their roots. You don’t want to use more substrate than is necessary. For live aquatic plants, it may be better to start with two inches of substrate depth at the front of your tank, sloping up to three inches along the back of your tank.  With synthetic plants, and inch to an inch and a half in the back is more than sufficient.

A smoother surface does generally create a better look. Don’t get fancy and make waves in your substrate. Rake it evenly across your tank from side to side, with a smooth, slight upwards slope from front to back.

Aquarium backings are best used as solid colored backings. If your theme perfectly matches the design on a picture printed backing, then that is okay, otherwise avoid these type of backings. Backings with printed patterns can be an interesting look, the important thing is to match your chosen backing to your theme. Don’t use an ocean themed backing for a tank aquascaped with a river look, however, a backing offering a view of freshwater plantings and no blue sky area can be a good choice. Most fish will show up nicely against greenery.

Tinfoil will crinkle nicely and is still a nice choice for an easy, inexpensive backing, but not all fish will look their best against the silvery hues. If you’re going to plant your tank fairly heavily, however, tinfoil or a heavy, waterproof wrapping paper can be a great way to block off the little of the back wall of the tank that remains.

Of course, you may choose to not use any kind of backing. This is fine, and indeed what many aquarists choose to do. Just do your best to place your plants to hide your tank equipment and loop all of your power cords to one side, equally obscured with plants.

Let there be only one focal point. Other pleasing vistas and interesting things to look at are good, but nothing in your design should seem to compete with the single designated focal point. This could be a particularly striking plant, or group of plants, a Dutch street, an interesting looking piece of driftwood, a large stone or a grouping of stones.

Your focal point could also be a store bought, man-made item, such as a hut, statue, or the old sunken ship. The choice is your’s entirely, just strive to not have to focal points competing with each other. There should be other interesting things in your tank to look at, other pleasing vistas, but not two, competing focal points. The viewer’s eye should be drawn to one spot, and then travel leisurely from there to take in all the other beauties of your tank. This fails to happen if the eye is drawn to two competing focal points. It throws off the balance of your tank up close, and from further away.

Other Tank Décor

Though we haven’t discussed the use of man-made aquarium décor in the fish tank, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be used. It all depends on what you like. A Dutch style aquascape might be nicely complimented with a few well placed statues, and a Polynesian hut would look perfectly at home in many of Amano’s designs.

To add a whimsical dimension to your naturalized design, utilize man-made aquarium décor sparingly, but effectively. Hide tank decor amidst the plantings. Anything obviously man made that is not somewhat hidden should be very diminutive.

Statues of sea-gods and Greek ruins partially obscured by greenery might be accented in the foreground by placing a single small statue head in the open. In a river setting, woodland fairies might abound, while a bog styled aquascape might hide a few playful frogs.

Keep in mind that you can always use a nontoxic spray sealant to seal items you may wish to use which are not originally intended for use in aquariums. Avoid anything with sharp edges.

Enjoying the Results

Finally, have fun, create something you will like to look at, but don't overdo it. Less is more effective, while too much can just lead to too much work.

If using live plants, give them time to grow out. Keep the faster growers in check with occasional trimmings to maintain the balanced look of your tank while the slower growers catch up. Regularly remove any wilting, dying leaves to sustain a cleaner tank.

Be sure to place your tank somewhere you will be able to best enjoy it. A large tank can sit nicely behind a sofa, as long as there are no children in the house. Next to your favorite chair is a great spot. The best tanks are ones you are able to frequently sit and admire on a daily basis.

You’ll get to know and enjoy your fish much better that way, and you’ll see what’s working in your design and what can be improved upon the next time you clean your tank. You’ll also notice much quicker when something is wrong. A dying plant or a sick fish can be overlooked if you’re not checking things out every day.

And always remember, if you're not totally in love with the finished product of your aquascape, you can always revise it. In fact, periodically starting all over again can be half of the fun!

Happy aquascaping!

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